CAPITOL RECAP: Panel suspends state's school mask mandate

CAPITOL RECAP: Panel suspends state’s school mask mandate

By CAPITOL NEWS ILLINOIS

SPRINGFIELD – A legislative panel on Tuesday, Feb. 15, voted to suspend the latest version of COVID-19 mitigations for public schools, saying in part that those rules are still being litigated in a state appellate court.

The Joint Committee on Administrative rules voted 9-0, with two members voting “present,” to object to the rules and suspend them from going into effect.

The Illinois Department of Public Health filed the emergency rules late Monday, renewing the emergency rules it had filed in September. The September rules officially expired on Sunday, Feb. 13, because emergency rules cannot stay in place more than 150 days.

However, a Sangamon County judge on Feb. 4 issued a temporary restraining order halting enforcement of those September rules in the 170 school districts that were parties in the lawsuit.

Those rules included requirements that all students, employees and visitors wear face coverings while indoors on school property, that employees either be vaccinated or submit to regular testing, and that schools exclude any student or employee from school property or events if they have tested positive or were in close contact with someone else who had either a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19 for a certain period.

Among other things, Judge Raylene Grischow said in her opinion that there was no need for emergency rulemaking because COVID-19 had at that time been around for more than a year and a half and that the agency should have gone through the regular rulemaking process, which allows for public comment.

She also said the rule on excluding students and employees from schools amounted to a kind of “quarantine” and that school districts were prohibited under state law from issuing such a quarantine without an order by a court or local health department.

That case is now on appeal in the 4th District Court of Appeals.

JCAR is a 12-member committee divided evenly between the House and Senate, and between Democrats and Republicans. It is authorized to review agency rulemakings to determine whether they are consistent with state law and legislative intent. At least eight votes are required to block an agency rule from taking effect.

The vote by JCAR means that, for the time being, there is no state mandate on mitigation measures for public or private K-12 schools.

Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration, however, continues to encourage masking in schools.

* * *

MANDATE TO BE LIFTED: If hospitalizations for COVID-19 continue to decline for the rest of the month, Gov. JB Pritzker plans to lift his executive order that mandates face coverings indoors by Feb. 28. The plan does not apply to schools.

It’s unclear what level of rise in hospitalizations could lead the state to change its course, but Pritzker and health officials said at an afternoon news conference Wednesday that such a scenario was not out of the question.

Regardless of what happens with hospitalizations, masks will continue to be mandated at schools, on school buses and other public transportation, at nursing homes and congregate living facilities, and at day cares beyond March 1.

“The equation for schools just looks different right now than it does for the general population,” Pritzker said at the news conference in Chicago. “Schools need a little more time for community infection rates to drop, for our youngest learners to become vaccine eligible and for more parents to get their kids vaccinated.”

But whether he has the authority to issue such mandates in schools will be a question decided by state courts. The 4th District Court of Appeals is currently considering whether a lower court’s temporary restraining order on the governor’s school mandates pertaining to about 170 school districts will remain in effect.

Pritzker did not state specific metric thresholds would need to be met before school mask mandates could be lifted, but noted he hoped it would be “weeks rather than months” when a decision could be made.

The reason the state was able to get to a place where Pritzker could consider lifting the mandate, he said, is because hospitalizations for COVID-19, which pushed heights of 7,400 cases in mid-January, have fallen by nearly two-thirds, to 2,496 cases as of Tuesday night.

Twenty percent of statewide intensive care unit beds were available as of Tuesday night, up from a low of about 8 percent four weeks ago, Pritzker said.

It’s a faster decline in hospitalizations than at any point in the pandemic, Pritzker said.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said 89 percent of those hospitalizations are in unvaccinated individuals. Approximately 75 percent of the state’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, putting Illinois at the top of Midwestern states.

Ezike said lifting the mandate does not signify an end to COVID-19, but the latest in the state’s effort to “coexist with COVID.”

The path forward likely includes masks, vaccines, testing and creating safer settings through better ventilation, she said.

Local jurisdictions and businesses may continue to enforce stricter masking guidelines than outlined by the state.

* * *

HIGHER EDUCATION SPENDING: Gov. JB Pritzker continued to promote his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year Tuesday, Feb. 15, outlining his plan for rebuilding the state’s health care workforce during a stop at a Peoria community college.

He joined local leaders at Illinois Central College to talk about the Pipeline for the Advancement of the Healthcare Workforce program, a proposed initiative modeled after an existing statewide grant program, the Workforce Equity Initiative.

The PATH program would run through the state’s community college system, providing financial assistance to students enrolling in courses to obtain certificates in high-need health care areas. The targeted programs include nursing and certified nursing assistant positions, respiratory therapists and emergency medical technicians.

Assistance would also be available to address other barriers such as transportation, child care, food vouchers and tutoring.

Pritzker has asked lawmakers to invest $25 million in the program in the upcoming fiscal year.

Pritzker also proposed a $2 million increase in funding to the state’s Nursing Education Scholarship program which is aimed at retaining and recruiting nursing professionals. The governor also proposed eliminating licensing fees that will save health care workers about $21 million.

His budget also proposes doubling funding for a Nurse Educator Fellowship program and a Competitive Grants for Nursing Schools program aimed at increasing the number of nursing school graduates.  

Pritzker also touted the Workforce Equity Initiative program, which launched in 2019 with the backing of Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria. That initiative offers 120 training programs through 18 colleges across the state to increase workforce skills and expand training opportunities for minority students. Funds can be used for tuition, child care, transportation and educational supplies, and the program receives about $18.7 million annually.

As of Dec. 31, 2021, the collective outcomes of the FY20 and FY21 grants showed that 5,221 students had enrolled in WEI, with 3,885 being African American students.

In the FY 2023 proposed budget, Pritzker proposed $122 million increase for MAP grants, bringing the program’s total funding over $600 million. He also proposed a $2.5 million increase to Adult Education and Career and Technical programs for community colleges, and $2.3 million for a Minority Teacher Scholarships program.

* * *

DCFS MACE BILL: Republican lawmakers are calling for the passage of legislation that would allow Department of Children and Family Services workers to carry pepper spray for self-defense when investigating allegations of child abuse.

This comes weeks after the death of DCFS investigator Deidre Silas, who died while checking the welfare of six children at a home in Thayer in rural Sangamon County. Benjamin Reed, 32, was charged with first-degree murder in connection with her death.

“It is legal for people to carry pepper spray for their own protection, as many do all over this state. Yet, DCFS workers who have to walk into abusive homes are not allowed that same protection,” Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield, the sponsor of Senate Bill 4165, said at a news conference.

Rep. Sandy Hamilton, R- Springfield, filed House Bill 5688 that would allow the DCFS employees to carry mace or pepper spray on the job, also requiring them to complete a training program from the Illinois State Police on the proper use of pepper spray.

McClure is also a cosponsor on a bill to increase criminal penalties for attacking a DCFS worker. Gov. JB Pritzker has endorsed that effort. Similar efforts failed in 2019 after the death of DCFS worker Pam Knight, who was fatally assaulted during a child protection call in Milledgeville in northwest Illinois.

Rep. Tony McCombie, R- Savanna, also introduced House Bill 3646  that will allow DCFS caseworkers to carry a concealed handgun during the performance of their official duties.

Since 2017, there have been more than 2.5 million visits to homes and 20 documented incidents where a worker was threatened or assaulted, and all of those incidents were reported to local law enforcement, according to information provided by DCFS last month.

DCFS investigators must complete a six-week training that includes worker safety and within the first 90 days of employment must complete workplace and field safety training. In addition, after Knight’s death, Illinois State Police conducted training for DCFS, covering topics such as de-escalation, active shooter response and situational awareness.

* * *

TIP WAGE: A bill in the Illinois House would do away with the sub-minimum wage paid to waitresses, bartenders and other tipped service workers.

Rep. Camille Lilly, D-Chicago, introduced House Bill 5139 last month. If the bill becomes law, workers who supplement their wages with tips will receive the state’s minimum wage starting on Jan. 1, 2025, in addition to their tips.

Its passage may be a tall order, however, as the Illinois Restaurant Association successfully lobbied when lawmakers overhauled the minimum wage schedule in 2019 to allow businesses to continue to pay less than minimum wage to employees who earn tips.

Lilly’s bill has currently not received a full committee assignment and has no cosponsors.

In 2019, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation into law providing a path to increase Illinois’ minimum wage rate to $15 per hour and $9 for tipped workers by 2025. Servers and bartenders who receive tips are currently subject to a $7.20 an hour minimum wage.

At a bill signing for that 2019 law, Sam Toia, president of the Restaurant Association, appeared alongside Pritzker and praised the law for maintaining the credit which allows employers to pay tipped workers 60 percent of the minimum wage if tips make up the other 40 percent.

The IRA did not respond to a request for comment as of this publication.

“Two years ago, we raised the minimum wage, but we left tip workers out,” Lilly said. “This is a way to address that.”

Since 2020, more than a million workers have left the hospitality industry nationwide. In Illinois, about 90,000 workers have left the industry since 2020, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The bureau reported that a record 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November, but the quit rate in the hospitality and leisure industry was 6.4 percent – more than double the average of all the combined industries.

The virtual news conference on Monday was hosted by the organization One Fair Wage, based in New York.

* * *

FELONY MURDER LAW: Illinois House Republicans on Wednesday, Feb. 9, continued a push to repeal a criminal justice reform bill passed one year ago, citing the law as the reason a Chicago man was not charged with murder for his role in a shootout that left one bystander dead.

A Cook County grand jury declined to indict Travis Andrews, 26, for the murder of Melinda Crump, 54, who was shot in the abdomen during a shootout initiated by Andrews while walking to a convenience store in December, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

While Andrews initiated the shootout by firing multiple shots at someone else, his bullet did not kill Crump. Bullets apparently fired by the intended target, who has not been identified, struck Crump in the abdomen.

State law, in certain circumstances, allows a person who did not directly take the action that led to a death to be charged with first-degree murder. But reformers, in passing the criminal justice reform law, tried to lessen prosecutors’ ability to file those so-called “felony murder” charges if a person’s action doesn’t directly cause the death.

The reform bill, called the Safety, Accountability, Fairness, and Equity-Today, or SAFE-T Act, passed during a lame duck session in January 2021. It changed one of three subsections to crimes contained under first-degree murder.

Under the SAFE-T Act, it allows for felony murder charges of an individual if “he or she, acting alone or with one or more participants, commits or attempts to commit a forcible felony other than second degree murder, and in the course of or in furtherance of such crime or flight therefrom, he or she or another participant causes the death of a person.” The previous version did not include the language which said “causes the death of a person.”

Andrews was indicted on weapons charges in the shooting but not on the first-degree murder charge.

While grand jury deliberations are secret, the Sun-Times reported that Assistant State’s Attorney James Murphy told a judge during a hearing that jurors cited the SAFE-T Act as the reason for not pursuing the murder charge.

“The Cook County grand jury’s decision not to indict Travis Andrews on first-degree murder because of the SAFE-T Act highlights what we have been saying all along,” Rep. Dan Ugaste, R-Geneva said at a news conference Wednesday. “The SAFE-T Act has made Illinois a less safe place to live.”

But Jobi Cates, executive director of Restore Justice Illinois, said the reforms “narrow the wrongdoings” and make it difficult to charge people with first-degree murder when they did not intend to kill the person who died.

Cates said the change in the statute is intended to prevent the possibility of charging someone with a first-degree murder when the killing was committed by a third party.

Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, released a statement following the GOP news conference and grand jury’s decision, saying he hoped the person responsible for Crump’s death would be arrested.

* * *

AG PETITION: Attorney General Kwame Raoul filed a petition on Thursday, Feb. 10, asking the Illinois Supreme Court to intervene in a controversial sexual assault case that ended with a circuit judge voiding his original guilty verdict and freeing the defendant early.

Raoul petitioned for a writ of mandamus urging the Illinois Supreme Court to order Adams County Circuit Judge Robert K. Adrian to impose a lawful sentence in the sexual assault case – four to 15 years in prison.

Adrian released the defendant after he served five months in a county jail when the sentence would otherwise require four to 15 years in prison.

Adrian presided over the three-day bench criminal sexual assault trial of Drew S. Clinton, 19, in October. Clinton was accused of raping a 16-year-old girl at a graduation party in Quincy on May 30. Adrian found Clinton guilty of one count of criminal sexual assault.

But when Clinton returned to court in January, Adrian decided to reverse his own finding of guilt and vacate the conviction. This allowed Adrian to avoid sentencing him to the minimum sentence under Illinois law. He then ordered Clinton to be released from custody.

A transcript showed that Adrian criticized the parents where the party was held.

“This is what’s happened when parents do not exercise their parental responsibilities, when we have people, adults, having parties for teenagers and they allow coeds and female people to swim in their underwear in their swimming pool,” he said, according to a transcript.

Carrie Ward, the executive director for the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said Adrian’s statements were victim-blaming and further traumatized the victim.

Adams County Chief Judge Thomas McCartney reassigned Adrian from the criminal docket to a civil docket last month.

Clinton, who formerly lived in Quincy, turned 18 two weeks before the crime occurred. He had no previous criminal record. He currently resides in Michigan.

Daniel S. McConkie Jr., who teaches criminal law at Northern Illinois University School of Law, said Adrian avoided appellate review by reversing the conviction, instead of imposing a sentence that was less than the mandatory minimum.

Adrian said during the hearing that he knew that his decision would be overturned if he did that.

That leaves the case to the Supreme Court to force Adrian to impose the sentence prescribed by Illinois law.

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

 

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